TV Review: His Dark Materials: "The Lost Boy" (S1, Ep. 5)

Darcy and Winters

In this episode, things begin to take some interesting turns, as Lyra at last discovers for certain what exactly the Magisterium has been doing to the captured children: separating them from their dæmons. Meanwhile, in our world, we are finally introduced to the character Will Parry and his troubled mother, both of whom are being pursued by Boreal in his efforts to discover what it was that Stanlislaus Grumman managed to discover. In the final moments of the episode, Lyra is captured by unnamed persons and taken to the terrible Bolvangar.

Even though I’ve read the book and knew what to expect, the death of Billy Costa was still like an emotional punch to the gut, and it serves as an important reminder of the stakes of the journey to regain the children from the hands of the Magisterium. When his mother tells him that he can go and…

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On the Pleasures of Re-Reading "The Lord of the Rings"

Darcy and Winters

As I do every year, I’ve recently started re-reading The Lord of the Rings. Those who are familiar with my old blog no doubt know that, every December, I commit a good amount of my blog space to a discussion of Tolkien and his works, and this year is no different. So, to inaugurate my first Tolkien Appreciation Month on this author blog, I thought I’d talk about the pleasures of re-reading Tolkien.

I first read The Lord of the Rings when I was about 9 or 10, and it proved to be one of those truly life-changing literary events. I simply couldn’t stop reading it; it seemed to exert some sort of hold on me that I couldn’t break. Full of trembling fear at the Ringwraiths, swept up in the majesty of Tolkien’s world, and moved to tears by this tale of sacrifice, I knew that here was a…

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Screening History: “Outlaw King” (2018)

I’d been meaning to watch the Netflix film Outlaw King for some time now. As someone who has an abiding interest in the depiction of history in film and television, it seemed like it might be a worthwhile watch. While I did enjoy the film, what struck me the most was just how forgettable it was, hardly the sort of cinematic legacy that Robert the Bruce, one of Scotland’s most famous heroes, should inspire.

The film centers on the man Robert the Bruce–portrayed for better or worse by Chris Pine–one of the claimants to the Scottish throne. He repeatedly falls afoul of the English King Edward I and his son Edward, until he nearly loses his life and the throne he has fought for so diligently. Ultimately, however, he attains his goal, leaving the English thoroughly defeated on the field of battle, leaving Robert to claim his crown.

The entire time I was watching this film, I found myself wondering: why Chris Pine? I mean, of all the Chrises who are currently making their way in Hollywood, he’s probably the last one that I would have picked to play a man like Robert the Bruce. To be fair, he does a creditable job in the role, but he really lacks the charisma and weightiness to really make his portrayal of a truly epic hero. The fact that he isn’t Scottish, and that he doesn’t really make an effort to speak in an accent really hamstrings his portrayal.

The rest of the cast does their best with a script that doesn’t really give them a lot of room for development. Stephen Dillane, fresh out of his outing as the hard-nosed and implacable Stannis Baratheon in Game of Thrones, turns in a convincing performance as the heartless and cruel Edward I, arguably one of the sternest and brutal kings that England has ever produced. Florence Pugh is moderately engaging as Robert’s wife Elizabeth, though I have to admit that there wasn’t much chemistry there, and I was not significantly moved by their “romance.”

Where the film really succeeds, however, is in its cinematography. Like all good epics–especially those set in mountainous regions such as Scotland, the film makes good use of its scenery. Time and again, the camera flies overhead, revealing grand, sweeping vistas that literally take one’s breath away. Unfortunately, the actual dramatic part of the film doesn’t have nearly as strong an effect, and while I enjoyed the story, I really didn’t feel moved at any points. It was, despite the huge amount of blood gore, a largely bloodless affair.

Speaking of all of that blood and gore…it seems that, to match the grimdark sub-genre of fantasy, we’re now to be subjected history films and TV series that do the same. Some, such as History Channel’s Vikings, can get away with it because they have a cast and a story that is engaging on its own. Films like Outlaw King, however, lean far too much into this “gritty” portrayal of the medieval past. In fact, the film’s final battle is just one long, muddy, cacophonous mess.

Aside from the gratuitously loud sound that always seemed to accompany these sequences, we also have the fact that it becomes rather boring after a while. I’m not saying that bloodshed and battle shouldn’t be part of the representation of the medieval past, but I do wonder whether this new mud, blood, and guts method of portraying that period is nearly as titillating or visually interesting as the producers and directors seem to think. As with sex (which used to be the go-to for historical fictions), one has to make sure that all of the titillation has a story and characters to support it. Outlaw King, unfortunately, has neither.

All in all, I thought that Outlaw King was a fine outing as far as it goes, a brief foray into a period of Anglo-Scottish history that hasn’t been tapped really well since Braveheart (say what you will about that film’s abuses of history, it’s still a damn fine epic). Unlike Braveheart, however, I do rather doubt that Outlaw King will stand the test of time to become a marker of what the genre can do.

Book Review: "Finding Zsa Zsa: The Gabors Behind the Legend" (by Sam Staggs)

Note: My thanks to NetGalley for a copy of this book for an honest review.

I’ve long had a fascination for the Gabors. I suppose that shouldn’t be surprising, given the extent to which they, like so many other glamour goddesses, have become gay icons. Imagine my surprise and delight, then, when I saw that there was an entire book devoted just to them. Delicious and decadent, Finding Zsa Zsa is a heartfelt examination of the lives of these women, which were at once both beautiful and tragic.

Though the book’s title privileges Zsa Zsa, and though the book does so to an extent, it also goes into a great deal of detail about the other sisters and, of course, the indomitable mother Jolie. In Staggs’s capable (if at times luxurious and self-indulgent) hands, they are brought to live in all of their contradictions. Though they have often been derided as being famous for being famous (and though there is some truth to that assessment) all four of the Gabors were some combination of sensible, extravagant, and talented, though there were times when one of those traits would overshadow the others. Indeed, Eva would be the most successful in terms of acting, while Zsa Zsa could have done so had she put in a little more effort. And Magda and Jolie, not known for their acting, were nevertheless hard-headed businesswomen.

As was the case with his previous books, Staggs has a style that is really all his own. Though he looks with contempt at the sorts of biographers who were a bit too credulous in their approach to the Gabors and their conscious construction of their own image, Staggs tends to do the opposite, assume that his own assumptions and understandings are ironclad. It’s not really a good thing when you find yourself wondering just how reliable a writer is when they make claims that are more than a little outlandish.

What’s more, Staggs has a tendency to let his rhetorical flights of fancy get away from him, and while this can sometimes be charming, it can also get a bit cloying at times (though, considering the fact that the book is about the Gabor, perhaps this is self-conscious, though I rather doubt it). As with his previous books, he tends to be a little too in love with his own cleverness. A nice rhetorical flourish is fine used judiciously, but there are times in the book when his own penchant for showing off becomes more of a distraction than anything else.

Yet for all of its gossipy seaminess and Staggs’ flights of rhetorical fancy, he does ably demonstrate the extent to which the lives of the Gabors, as glamourous and glitzy as they often were, were all also marred by tragedy. This ranges from Eva’s premature death as the result of a fall to Zsa Zsa’s ignominious last days under the thrall of her final husband to Francesca’s unfortunate descent into mental illness and homelessness. Staggs is right to remind us of the terrible toll that female stardom often takes on the women involved, and how American culture seems peculiarly unwilling (or unable) to provide these aging stars the type of support that they need in their later years.

It’s clear throughout the book that Staggs has a genuine fondness for his subjects. He seems to have a particular affection for Francesca, and a strong dislike (one might even go so far as to say disdain) for Zsa Zsa’s last husband and his fame-hunting antics (and possible abuse of his wife). Again, this isn’t necessarily a problem, but it does mean that Staggs makes no pretense of objectivity.

Furthermore, though I don’t always agree with his conclusions of his analysis, I have to admit that Staggs has a perceptive film critic buried inside him somewhere, and the parts of the book where he analyzes both Eva’s and Zsa Zsa’s performances in their various adventures are some of the most insightful (and thus, to me, enjoyable) parts of the book. He has a keen eye for the sort of detail that makes for a smart reading of a film, and I sometimes think that a focus on more of that and less on seaminess would have helped.

Overall, I very much enjoyed Finding Zsa Zsa, though I also would have liked to see more detail about each of the women. Still, for those who want to learn more about these glamourous women and their racy lives, one could do worse than Sam Staggs.

TV Review: His Dark Materials: “Armour” (S1, Ep. 4)

Darcy and Winters

First of all, let me start off by saying…wow, what an episode! Lyra finally meets both Lee Scoresby and the formidable armored bear Iorek and, by the end of the episode, they have all begun their trek to the place known to the witches as Bolvangar, where they hope to at last find and rescue the missing children. All of that is quite a lot of action to pack into an episode, but somehow it manages to feel perfectly paced.

I’ll confess that I had some serious doubts about Lin-Manuel Miranda as Lee Scoresby. I guess I had a certain image of him (okay, it’s Sam Elliott from the film version), and I just wasn’t sold that the man most famous for playing Alexander Hamilton could conform to what I saw in the character. Say what you will about LMM, but he does have a certain rakish charm, and that…

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Book Review: “The Ruin of Kings” (by Jenn Lyons)

Darcy and Winters

As readers of this blog know, I’m always on the lookout for a new fantasy to really sink my teeth into, one that would allow me to lose myself in its world while also keeping the pace moving. I remembered seeing Jenn Lyons’ The Ruin of Kings at Barnes and Noble some time ago, but it was some time before I could actually sit down and read it, and even more time after that until I’d finished it.

The novel follows Kihrin as he struggles to come to terms with a destiny that is far grander–and far more dangerous–than he’d ever imagined. It toggles between three different timelines, as well as several characters, before they all come together in the sort of climaxes that are the hallmark of much epic fantasy. The novel ends with Kirhin fleeing into exile, while a horde of demons has been unleashed upon the land.

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Reading History: “Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World” (by Tom Holland)

I have a complicated relationship with the works of the British historian Tom Holland. While I’ve enjoyed all of his books that I’ve read, I’m always struck by two things. First is his tendency to indulge his own stylistic flourishes to an extraordinary degree and, second, to try to craft an all-inclusive argument that subsumes all things into itself. Though these might at first blush appear unrelated phenomena, they are in fact related, and each feeds into the other.

In Dominion, all of the things that I both enjoy and find infuriating about his work are front and center. Stylistically, this book is somewhat self-indulgent. It doesn’t seem as if Holland has any form of impulse control when it comes to his flights of fancy and his rather rakish and cheeky turns of phrase. To put it another way, he sometimes to be so in love with his own clever Now, don’t get me wrong. I like a bit of pizzazz in my prose, but when it’s repeated again and again and again, it starts to get a little cloying and, ultimately, distracting. Sometimes, I think that Holland should really make an effort to find an editor who can rein him in and keep him from indulging in some of his most exaggerated tendencies.

In Dominion, Tom Holland looks into the deep roots of Christianity and how, since its founding, its permutations and adaptations have shaped the modern Western world. Beginning in antiquity, he then moves into the modern world, showing how Christianity is, in essence, responsible for everything from socialism to science to secularism. And, in a rather counterintuitive move, he even suggests that such thoroughly un-Christian institutions such as ISIS are, even if they don’t realize it, Christian (he makes a similar argument about Hinduism and Judaism). Given that Holland has made no secret of his contempt for much of Islamic thought, I suppose I shouldn’t find this surprising, but nevertheless I did find it intellectually disingenuous (to put it mildly) and intellectually imperialist (to put it bluntly).

The real issue with Dominion, and with Holland’s work more generally, is his tendency to mistake his premise for his conclusion. Throughout this book, I kept wanting to hear the actual evidence to support the large claims that he makes. It’s not enough to merely assert that basically ever aspect that we have come to associate with modernity owes its roots in Christianity, and I’m not convinced that you could truly support such a huge claim with any degree of intellectual honesty. However, I’m also not entirely sure that I disagree with some of these assertions–I agree that secularism has no identity without the religious with which it is juxtaposed–but I don’t really think that Holland effectively or convincingly proves this point or, for that matter, many of the other ones. While I think he’s on surer ground on antiquity and the medieval periods, once gets to modernity things start to unravel rather quickly.

And, to be just a bit nit-picky, Holland also tends to make some slight errors that are frustrating because they’re so easily corrected. Early in the book, for example, he says that the Byzantines referred to themselves as such, when it’s pretty well-known that, for the entirety of their existence, they referred to themselves as Romans (even Europeans referred to them as Greeks, not Byzantines). Though these aren’t world-ending, when one is writing a book of popular history, and when one has a particularly large audience, accuracy becomes even more important.

That being said, I do think that Dominion makes some important points. Holland is absolutely right that Christianity was a truly world-changing development, and he’s also right that we in the West (or, to put it somewhat differently, the Global North) do owe much of our patterns of thought and our cultural sensibilities to Christianity. However, to use it as some sort of ur-myth that explains all of modernity…well, that still seems like a bit of a stretch.

Overall, I think that Dominion is vintage Tom Holland, and those with an interest in the broad history of Christianity and its influence on the ancient, medieval, and modern worlds will find it both enjoyable to read and informative. However, it’s also important that they approach it with a healthy dose of skepticism and, if possible, to seek out other sources to flesh out his narrative.

TV Review: His Dark Materials: “The Spies” (S1, Ep. 3)

Darcy and Winters

In the most recent episode of His Dark Materials Lyra, having escaped from Mrs. Coulter’s clutches and those of the Gobblers, finds herself taken in by the Gyptians who, we know, are on their own mission to rescue their children. Though much remains unclear, it is becoming increasingly obvious to her that she is part of a much greater destiny than she ever suspected. Meanwhile, the Magisterium–particularly Mrs. Coulter and Boreal–continue their own investigations.

At this point, the series has begun to take some liberties with the original novel, fleshing out some of the behind-the-scenes action that we don’t get in the book. For example, in this episode we see Mrs. Coulter ransack Jordan College, under the mistaken belief that Lyra has fled back to them. And of course we also see Boreal making continued forays into our world in order to track down the man she knows as Stanislaus…

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TV Review: His Dark Materials: “The Idea of North” (S1, Ep. 2)

Darcy and Winters

Sorry that this review is a few days late. It’s been quite a week. Hopefully from here on out I’ll be able to post my reviews in a more timely fashion (no promises, though!)

In the most recent episode of His Dark Materials, Lyra finds that her stay in London with Mrs. Coulter is not at all what she expected it to be, particularly as her new mentor has more than a little bit of a sinister and cruel edge to her behaviour. The Gyptians continue their search for Billy Costa, and Carlo Boreal reveals that has somehow managed to find a way into our own world.

As was the case in the first episode, Ruth Wilson threatens to overshadow the proceedings. Somehow, she manages to bring together the essential contradictions at the heart of one of Pullman’s most compelling characters, at times vulnerable and at other as hard and…

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The Benefits of a Daily Word Goal

Darcy and Winters

In honour of NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month, for those who haven’t heard of it before), I thought I’d write down some thoughts on the benefits of having a daily word goal.

First, it’s important to point out that opinions are divided about keeping a daily word count. When I was in graduate school, my adviser told me that focusing on writing a certain amount of words per day was the wrong way of going about composition. In his opinion, this led to my writing being, at times, a little unfocused. What’s more, it seemed that a lot of people agreed with him. Needless to say, I didn’t, though at the time I struggled to articulate why that was the case.

While I think there’s something to that advice in regards to academic writing–a focus on productivity can sometimes distract from the equally important issues of focus, clarity, and brevity–for…

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